What to Make of China's Defense Spending Increase
Image Credit: U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Flickr)

What to Make of China's Defense Spending Increase


On Tuesday outgoing Chinese premier Wen Jiabao opened the annual meeting of the National People's Congress with a report announcing, among other things, that defense spending will expand by 10.7 percent this year, reaching an official figure of $115.7 billion. Wise China-watchers attach a mental asterisk to economic and budgetary figures issuing from Beijing, which has every incentive and every opportunity to fudge such numbers for political reasons. Last year, for instance, the Pentagon estimated Chinese defense spending at $120-180 billion, against the official total of $106 billion. Its 2012 report on Chinese military power ascribed the disparity to such factors as "poor accounting transparency," the nation's "still incomplete transition from a command economy," and the absence of major expenditures such as foreign weapons purchases from the defense budget. In all likelihood the Pentagon's is a conservative estimate, compiled by U.S. defense officials worried about standing accused of peddling the "China threat theory," pursuing nouveau containment, and the rest of the usual sins.

Communist Party spokesmen drew a contrast between the Chinese and U.S. military budgets, pointing out that the Chinese figure remains a fraction of the American one. That's true, but it disguises as much as it reveals about the state of the U.S.-China competition.

Two comments, one about arithmetic and one about geostrategy. My amphibian buddy Commander Salamander points out that under the Rule of 72, the PLA budget will double in less than seven years if it increases at 10.7 percent each year. That casts new light on the soothing Chinese talking point that it will take China thirty years to catch up with the United States. Let's suppose the Pentagon bumps up its estimate of Beijing's actual spending to $130-190 billion for this year. Take the midpoint of that range, $160 billion. If the double-digit increases of the past two decades persist, doubling the defense budget around every seven years, then China may exceed U.S. spending long before three decades elapse. It will do so even using the official CCP numbers, albeit a tad more slowly. (The Pentagon budget stands at around $600 billion this year.) Call it Beijing's Thirty-Year Rule, a bizarro version of Great Britain's Ten-Year Rule. The interwar Royal Navy, that is, assumed there would be no war for the coming decade. For Britain the Ten-Year Rule mutated into an excuse not to spend scarce funds on modernizing the fleet; for China a Thirty-Year Rule provides a breathing space to get ready.

The geostrategic point is the one I made on Monday, namely that side-by-side comparisons of defense figures mislead. For China the theater is the Asian seas, primarily the waters and skies landward of the first island chain. That's a relatively compact, manageable space. For the United States the theater is the world. Getting into most parts of that theater demands long voyages or flights through potentially contested thoroughfares. Projecting power across transoceanic distances is a daunting — and disproportionately expensive — enterprise. Apply a physics metaphor. Energy diminishes by the square of the distance from the energy source, not in linear fashion. It plunges. Much the same holds true for military power. The PLA has the luxury of concentrating its efforts, and its budget, on the fraction of the earth's surface that is maritime Asia. The U.S. military remains dispersed, and it must invest lavishly in bases, logistics, and large platforms capable of traversing vast distances, just to reach faraway scenes of action.

In short, the amounts the two competitors invest in usable firepower are closer than raw spending figures indicate. Let's refuse to be lied to by statistics.

March 11, 2013 at 15:40

I know this will go in one ear and out the other without encountering much resistance.

Comparing populations in respect to millitary spending is misleading because the GDP per capita is much higher in the USA – more than 5 times China's GDP per capita. Funny enough the US spending is roughly 5 times Chinese spending.

Accourding to the World bank in 2011 USA GDP per capita was $48,000. China was $8,400 per capita.

If you go by your logic/propaganda China should be spending $3 trillion based on population to match the USA. For a poor country to spend that amount of money on guns there would be a revolution faster than you can say "CCP"

Robert Erhart
March 11, 2013 at 15:23

I live and work in China. Could you please post a bullet list of aggressive actions by the United States against China in the 60 years?

Korean War is one I will give you. But then again, we did not cross into China, China crossed into South Korea.

Soong Mei-lan
March 11, 2013 at 13:35

You should really read more widely from reputable sources to get a real estimate of US expenditure on its military and related expenditure. It is very close to a trillion US dollars every year.  US's accounts needs accountants and skilled analysts to interpet and dissect to get the true picture.  This is a nation and government of serial liars.

Kim's Uncle
March 10, 2013 at 13:30

Well the PRC has an internal security budget that is larger than its defense budget designed for external enemies!!!! So who do you think the Communist party leadership fears more, its own people or a foreign military???

any reasonable person can conclude it is the latter? Tanks, bullets, uniforms, soldiers’ salary, supplies, etc cost money! To carry out a Tiananmen Square massacre style requires funds to buy the loyalty of the tank drivers and officers to mow down civilians in cold blood! Tiananmen Square was less than 24 years ago so it is not ancient history!

The US spends a lot on defense because there are crude, primitive, barbaric countries like china which is capable of carrying out Tiananmen Square massacre on its own people! This is reality! Such a regime can only elicit caution and wariness from civilized counties!

A warning to china, go ahead massacre your own kind but if china wants to try to massacre our allies or the US, then the US mighty armed forces can defend them! The US military is not a bunch of unarmed civilians. The US military can shoot back at the PLA!

The funny thing is all the big build up in china’s military budget doesn’t mean squat if the military leaders do not stay loyal to the party! So it remains to be seen if china’s military leaders have outgrown their political masters or they are merely two bit thugs for a political party! Higher principled military would be loyal to something higher like to the people or country of china and not to a bunch corrupt gangsters in the CPC!

March 10, 2013 at 00:06

"It is so obvious that China is a defender whereas US is an aggressor.  China concentrates on its vicinity, which is normal for a defender."

If the U.S continues to make trouble for China in asia and try to contain China's rise, China will be forced to go to gulf of Mexico. They are just asking for trouble with their policies towards China.

Interested Reader
March 9, 2013 at 12:59

Hey, I really agree with the author of this article. US should increase defence spending as fast as possible, to stay above potential Chinese military spending. Lets increase US defence budget above 6% and US should double defence spending every 5 years. This should allow US to project power into every country and even the moon and beyond! Lets forget about the economy, health, education and whatever else that really matter. Sounds good! 

March 9, 2013 at 12:33

Just a gentle reminder that the US is a world power with a defense budget  of $  600 billions annually for a global security burden  while China's just a regional  power but with a huge defense budget of $ 115bs ( if presumably  reported correctly) for only the Asia-Pacific theater. Of course, there's a big difference here.

March 9, 2013 at 11:41

Hearing these warhawks go at it reminds of those silly Discovery channel programs:

"Who would win in a FIGHT?! A saltwater CROCODILE or a tiger SHARK?!"

March 9, 2013 at 10:34

By that logic, the Manchurians were Imperial Japanese collaborators. It's horrible, how large swaths of the Chinese fully supported the invading Japanese, such as in Nanijing and Shanghai!

March 9, 2013 at 09:18

Jean Paul- you must have been raised on US propaganda. In its 5000 years history, name an instance when China cross more than 150 miles across any international ocean to fight any war of conquest, unlike the Europeans, UK, Japs and the Americans. You have bought into US imperialism hook liine and sinker… and you probabbly don't even realise your brain has been bought. Sad.

March 9, 2013 at 09:10

"Mark my words, the US will lose the next war with China." I don't think the Chinese are interested in a war with the US. Bernanke and his fellow bansters from Wall Street are the real enemies of the US citizens. They are destroying the US economy without any foriegn help. All else are weapons of mass distraction of the greedy, by the greedy and for the greedy. These are the realy war mongers and tnd they will start one when it suits their greedy purpose. They are well on their way with the help from Hollywood. My suggestion is to watch these people instead of being mislead by side issues based on false assumptions. God bless America… you will need that. LOL


Leonard K
March 9, 2013 at 07:45

The U.S. military, a.k.a. global warmongers incorporated, has the power to summon the whole of Nato plus all the states classified as "Nato partners'' plus almost all non-Nato countries like Japan, South Korea, Vanuatu including all those near-nameless little, little nations that made up the Coalition of the Willing (during the Bush period) to help it in any confrontation with China. Therefore, China's military budgettoday  is still so very laughably small. Too small or tiny to force the U.S. to think twice about wanting or dreaming of treating China as the next Iraq. LOL.

Share your thoughts

Your Name
Your Email
required, but not published
Your Comment

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief